Close Reading

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What is Close Reading?

Close reading is a way of analyzing a text that involves careful attention to a short passage or poem. When you conduct a close reading, you focus on a specific section of text and explain how language is used and/or how an author builds an argument. This attention to detail allows you to assess and discuss the larger themes or concerns of the text as a whole.

An effective close reading will discuss HOW the selected passage communicates meaning (what poetic or rhetorical strategies are used) as well as address WHY these strategies are used in this particular way—what is the author trying to communicate to the reader? What decisions has the author made?

When asked to produce a close reading of a text, students are often unsure where to begin. Below are some strategies you might find useful when attempting to begin the process of close reading.

Select a Passage

One important part of this exercise, if you have not been assigned a passage or poem, is selecting a passage. If the passage is particularly difficult to analyze for symbolic meaning, then you're going to have to do a lot more work to make your point. So, how do you make the right choice? Here are some ideas for what to watch for:

Unusual or repetitive images or themes: During your first reading of the text, try to take notes as you read. Mark anything that seems relevant or interesting to you – even if you are unsure why a particular section of the text stands out. After you have read the entire text, you can return to these sections to look for repeated patterns, themes, or words. Often, a close reading will focus on one example of a theme or pattern to study the significance of this theme or pattern more in depth.

Central characters or keyword definitions: You should also pay particular attention to passages that relate to central characters or definitions of keywords; you may decide to focus on one section and how it helps you understand a character, relationship, issue, or idea.

Beginnings and endings: Other places to look include opening passages (for prose works) and passages with rich imagery or language (for poetry).

Above all, you should consider a passage that has a great impact on you – then you can ask yourself "why?"

Choose a Passage That's Short—and Focused

Limit your selection to a paragraph or two at the most. In some cases, a sentence or two (or a few lines, if you are dealing with a poem) will be sufficient. Keep in mind that literature (and especially poetry) can be very dense. You will be surprised at how much you can glean from a short section – and how easily you can be overwhelmed by selecting a section that is too long.

Getting Started

Once you have selected your passage, you can start with some simple strategies to get you thinking about HOW language and/or argument are being used. Begin by making some observations about your passage, even if these observations seem simplistic or self-evident.

As you make these initial observations, also pay attention to how language use changes over the course of your passage. For example, if the same word appears at the beginning and end, does it mean different things in both places? Does the author's tone or attitude change?

Avoid Summary

Assume that your reader has read and is familiar with the text that you are analyzing, the characters you are referring to, and so on. In other words, it is not necessary for you to provide extensive plot summary or character description in your close reading. This does not mean that you should avoid summary altogether, but that you should be sure to use it sparingly and only when it relates directly to your argument – and even here, keep it brief.

Apply close reading to longer papers too

Close reading can also be a good place to begin if you are having difficulty formulating an argument for a longer paper. Even if the assignment does not explicitly ask you to conduct a close reading, the strategies described above can be useful tools for more involved textual analysis. Keep in mind that longer papers may employ close readings of more than one passage of a text; the connections between these close readings often form the basis of a more complicated argument.

Kinds of Close Readings

Close reading is a useful technique in any kind of analytical writing. This handout provides details about two particularly common kinds of close readings— English literature and philosophy—however, these techniques can be applied to other disciplines, too.

Close Reading in English Literature

As you begin making your initial observations about a passage or poem, try asking yourself some of the following questions:

Diction (word use)

What words are being used? Are the words long or short? Are they simple, complex or complicated, difficult to understand? Are any words repeated in the passage? What adjectives (or descriptive words) are used? What nouns do they describe? How do they alter your understanding of these nouns? Be sure that you understand how particular words are being used in your passage. If any words are unfamiliar, look them up. If you are analyzing an older text, keep in mind that words may mean different things at different points in history—so be sure to look up any words that may be familiar but used in an unfamiliar way. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) will provide you with definitions as well as histories of word use.

Whether you are looking at an historical or contemporary text, remember that words can be used in different ways. Ask yourself: Are any words being used in unusual ways? Are any words referring to something more than what is simply stated? Are any two (or more) words in the passage connected in some way?

Sentence Structure

  • Are the sentences long or short?
  • Can you easily locate the subject and the verb? Clauses and phrases?
  • Are the sentences simple or are they complex? Do they communicate meaning easily, or do they force you to think about what the author means to convey?

Narrative Voice

  • Who is speaking in your passage?
  • What narrative perspective is being used? First-, second-, or third-person? Is this consistent throughout the passage?
  • What does the narrative voice tell you? Does it provide description? Does it give you access to the inner thoughts or perspectives of a character or characters?

Tone

  • Is the speaker being straightforward, factual, open?
  • Is he or she taking a less direct route toward his or her meaning?
  • Does the voice carry any emotion? Or is it detached from its subject?
  • Do you hear irony (what is said is different from what is meant)? If so, where?

Not all of these strategies will be applicable to every close reading, but it can be helpful to find one or two (or more) that are useful to you and the particular passage you are working with.

Once you have finished looking at the language in detail, you can use your observations to construct a descriptive thesis. For example, you could argue that a passage is using short, simple sentences, or that it is using irony or a combination of these things. Your descriptive thesis should attempt to summarize the observations you have made about HOW language is being used in your passage. Remember, this will not be your final thesis; it's just the first step to arriving at an analytical thesis.

Construct an argument about the passage

Now that you have some idea of HOW language is being used in your passage, you need to connect this to the larger themes of the text. In other words, you now need to address WHY language is being used in the way (or ways) you have observed.

This step is essential to a successful close reading. It is not enough to simply make observations about language use, you must take these observations and use them to construct an argument about the passage.

Transform your descriptive thesis into an argument by asking yourself WHY language is used in this way:

  • What kinds of words are used (intellectual, elaborate, plain, or vulgar)?
  • Why are words being used in this way? Why are sentences long or short? Why might the author be using complicated or simple sentences? What might this type of sentence structure suggest about what the passage is trying to convey?
  • Who is the narrator? What is the narrative voice providing these particular descriptions? Why are we given access to the consciousness of these particular characters? Why not others?
  • What images do you see in the passage? What might they represent? Is there a common theme?
  • Why might the tone of the passage be emotional (or detached)?
  • To what purpose might the text employ irony?
  • What effect/impact is the author trying to create?

If you are still finding it difficult to connect your observations to larger themes of the text, try going back to:

  • Your notes on the text
  • Your class notes
  • The larger themes of the course (Often, re-reading the course outline can help to identify these themes.)

Close Readings in Philosophy

Close reading in philosophy usually requires writers to explain a text, word, or definition. Specifically, you might be asked to analyse the meaning of a particular term or how the philosopher sets up an argument. The philosopher will make a claim and then provide evidence for that claim. It is your job to see what evidence is relevant to that claim and demonstrate that you understand that relationship.

Mine the question for clues

Read the question or assignment carefully. Repeat: CAREFULLY. Circle keywords or ideas that the professor uses (you'll want to include these in your answer). Next, look for these words or concepts in the text itself. Where do they appear? Does the meaning of the word differ in these different examples? Often, the definition of concepts an author gives at the beginning of a text will develop or evolve as the text progresses. These shifts or contradictions can be a helpful starting point for analysis. Does the author have a consistent definition for a concept (this is rarely the case)? For example, if there isn't a consistent definition, then does this mean that the author is trying to slip something new into the argument without actually accounting for it?

Be Aware of Assumptions

Assumptions are beliefs that are not mentioned explicitly in the text, but are ideas the author bases his arguments on. To identify assumptions, ask yourself what does the author believe to be true (what is his or her perspective on the world? What does the argument assume about gender? race? class?). For example, the argument that all souls go to heaven assumes that souls exist.

Ask Yourself Questions

To make sure you fully understand the argument, play the role of adversary.
For example, ask yourself:

  • In order for this argument to be true, what does the author need to prove?
  • Why is this argument important?
  • If this argument or concept were implemented, what would the consequences be (for the other parts of the argument? in general?)
  • What parts of the argument are potentially contradicting each other?
  • What are potential alternatives to the philosopher's argument?
  • Are the social/political/economic conditions different now from the period during which the author was writing? How might the conditions of the period have influenced his or her argument?

Put the Argument in Your Own Words

One of the most common pitfalls in philosophy writing is misusing terms or using wordy structures. This often occurs when writers do not define the terms that they are using. Alternatively, a writer might use compound sentence structures in an attempt to make the point sound more academic than it needs to. Both mistakes can harm the readability and credibility of your writing. Professors want to know that you understand the material—the best way to demonstrate this is by translating the ideas into your own words. Imagine you are explaining the idea to a friend. Use very simple language.

Stay Close to the Text

Remember: everything you include in your paper should relate directly to the task of explaining what the author means. If you include examples to explain your argument, make sure they are succinct and relevant. Another tip: be very cautious about using phrases such as "in my opinion." If you are asked for your opinion, make sure you draw on the text to show reasons for your conclusions.

One good way to stay close to the text is to incorporate quotations. Things to keep in mind:

  • Use quotations sparingly and strategically, to capture key phrases or definitions
  • Quote only as much as you absolutely need— sometimes a word or phrase is enough. If you quote more than one or two lines, your readers might a) not read it and b) question your judgment
  • Never include a quotation without telling your reader what it means and why it matters. Integrate your quotation in the paragraph by introducing it before and responding to it after
    Example:
    Mill argues that this freedom to follow "desires and impulses" is what determines character, which he calls "the stuff of which heroes are made" (57). In short, he claims that if we reject individuality, we're rejecting heroes—something no one would argue for.

Structuring Your Paper

Here is one common structure you might follow in a philosophy explication paper: Introduction – Definitions – Analysis.

Introduction

Most philosophy papers follow a simple pattern, using the FIRST SENTENCE to state the thesis or main argument. This establishes the context for the paper, and tells the reader why you are writing this paper. For example, you might begin with, "In this paper I will argue that…" Follow this by explaining HOW you will argue this. "I will do this by…" Are you going to compare two philosophers? Are you going to explicate a philosopher's argument to show us how he or she reaches a certain conclusion? Tell readers what the structure of your argument will look like.

Definitions

Because philosophers use words in different ways to explore different concepts, it is vital that you explain what a philosopher means by the term or concept being discussed. In most philosophy papers, writers will begin by explaining the terms at hand. If your essay argues that Rousseau's concept of the social contract provides greater freedom than Mill's arguments for individual liberty, you'll need to explain what liberty means to these philosophers, and the similarities/differences in their understanding and use of the term. Sometimes philosophers' use of a term may change during the course of a paper or work—be sure to explore how they use words from the beginning to end. Does the philosopher contradict herself or himself? Does he or she change her mind about the concepts at hand?

Analysis

As you define these terms and describe how philosophers differ or agree on these definitions, you are doing the most crucial work of the essay— analyzing. Your instructor is interested less in what the philosopher has said (which they probably already know) and MORE in what you think of what the philosopher has said.

In an explication paper, your analysis involves explaining how a philosopher makes an argument. What are the pieces of the argument, and how do they fit together? Remember, this requires more than summarizing. If you find yourself using phrases like "Next, Rousseau says…" or "Then, she argues…" you might be in danger of simply re-capping the author's argument. Be sure you explain how the philosopher reaches a particular conclusion. How is the argument supported? What is it supported by?

Additional Resources

Close Reading Example: Literature

Consider this passage from George Eliot's Middlemarch:

Dorothea had gathered emotion as she went on, and had forgotten everything except the relief of pouring forth her feelings, unchecked: an experience once habitual with her, but hardly ever present since her marriage, which had been a perpetual struggle of energy with fear. For the moment, Will's admiration was accompanied with a chilling sense of remoteness. A man is seldom ashamed of feeling that he cannot love a woman so well when he sees a certain greatness in her: nature having intended greatness for men. But nature has sometimes made sad oversights in carrying out her intention; as in the case of good Mr. Brooke, whose masculine consciousness was at this moment in rather a stammering condition under the eloquence of his niece.

Analyzing the Passage.

Begin by asking yourself some questions about how language is being used in the passage.

Diction:
What words are being used here? Are any words repeated in this passage? What adjectives are used? What nouns do they describe? How do they alter your understanding of these nouns? Are any two (or more) words used in this passage connected in some way?

In this passage, you may observe that the words "greatness" and "nature" are repeated, and that these words are connected to "men." Similarly, you may notice words such as "emotion" and "feeling" are associated with "women." However, it is useful to note that "greatness" is also connected to women, and to the character of Dorothea in particular.

Narrative Voice:
Who is speaking in this passage? What narrative perspective is being used in this passage? What does the narrative voice tell you? What characters does it give you access to?

Here, third-person narrative voice is being used, but this voice incorporates the perspectives of three different characters: Dorothea, Will, and Mr. Brooke. This technique gives the reader greater insight into the attitudes and motivations of these characters.

Descriptive thesis:
At this point, you can construct a descriptive thesis (remember, this is not your final thesis), such as:

The word choice in this passage sets up a distinction between men and women, and the narrative voice gives the reader access to how various characters understand this distinction.

Constructing an argument about the passage. Now you must figure out why this passage is associating these particular words and giving you access to these particular characters.

You could argue a number of different things in relation to this passage. Here is one example of a thesis that deals with both HOW language is used and (importantly) WHY language is used in this way:

George Eliot's use of diction and narrative perspective in Middlemarch complicates the conventional understanding of gender and gender relations by refusing to adhere to a strict separation of gendered traits.

Now you have an argument about the passage you are working with. In this example, the body of your paper should expand on this argument by explaining in detail how you see diction and narrative voice working to complicate conventional gender associations and distinctions.

While you may choose to look at different uses of language and/or construct a different argument about how language is used in this (or any other) passage, keep in mind that a successful close reading will look both at the way in which language is used and at how this use of language communicates or illuminates the larger themes of the passage and/or the text. and at how this use of language communicates or illuminates the larger themes of the passage and/or the text.

Close Reading Example: Philosophy

If you are asked to choose a passage yourself, look for something that appears to be a key quote and begin asking yourself some questions about it. Be prepared to re-read and re-think your analysis several times. Most people write a whole bunch of stuff and then distil it down to its most basic elements and then show the relationship between those elements. For example, take a very important quote from Kant:

Intuitions without concepts are blind. Concepts without intuitions are empty.

There are two key terms in these sentences: intuitions and concepts. A philosophical analysis would typically start off with a definition of each of these terms. This could be provided by looking at some other passages in Kant to see where he might provide a definition. Try to explain what each element is on its own before showing how it relates to other elements. There are likely passages all over the place that could be used; your job is to summarize those passages in a simple definition, such as "intuition is the content of our experience." Then we move onto "concepts."

The same thing applies here with concepts. We can start talking about the relationship of concepts to ideas or how concepts belong to the faculty of understanding, but we want to stick with something simple to begin with and then we can move onto the more complex. For a concept, we could find a quote in Kant that provides the evidence for the following claim: "concepts are the form of our experience; they are what we bring to experience in order to make sense of it." This is where things get a little confusing because concepts, in their very nature, relate to other things, but it is different to say that concepts relate to other things full stop than to say that concepts relate to other things and then proceed to explain what those other things are. To do the latter would be tangential. For now, we just want to say that concepts are what we bring to experience in order to make experience meaningful; they are the forms of experience.

Now that we've taken apart the sentence and identified the major components, we are in a better position to understand how those components relate to each other. Once we see that intuition provides the content of experience and that concepts provide the form of experience that make experience meaningful, then we can better understand what Kant means when he says that intuitions without concepts are blind and concepts without intuitions are empty. What would it look like to experience something that we have no idea how to understand or that is totally meaningless to us? Imagine seeing something that you can barely describe, like some giant machine in a factory—it's very difficult to see what it is or what it does without understanding how it relates to all the other machines. There is no direction for that experience to move in and there is no way of properly understanding that experience. Similarly, simply having concepts is not sufficient in order to say that we actually understand and have experience of something. For example, if someone was to say the word "Gavagi" without giving you an idea of what that word refers to.. Doesn't make much sense, right? Well, just think about how often people use words or concepts without actually having any experience of those concepts; their concepts are empty and ultimately meaningless as well. We need both concepts and intuitions in order to render our concrete experience meaningful.

Though it may seem silly to spend so much time understanding one line of a philosopher's work, oftentimes the entire work can be understood if a single line is properly understood. Furthermore, the more that you can pull out of a single line, the more depth you can demonstrate in understanding that philosopher. Sometimes developing philosophical abilities really comes down to developing the art of explaining or teaching. This starts off by stating everything that you know (or could know) about a given word, concept, paragraph that you are analyzing and then stringing it together in a clear and logical manner. The ability to do this is the interpretation itself. It may seem straightforward, but each person has a slightly different take on what's going on in sentences like the one above and your own individuality will come out as you try to explain yourself as clearly as possible.